On May 6, the two U.S. newspapers of record, the New York Times and the Washington Post, following their usual custom, characterized Israel as the victim in the latest lopsided exchange of fire between the Israeli army and the irregulars in Gaza. Twenty-five Palestinians and four Israelis were dead as of that report, the highest number of Israelis killed in five years. It would seem that the weaker side would be classified as the victim, but the rules here are topsy-turvy. Israel virtually refuses to take casualties, while arrogating to itself the right to inflict daily injury and death on a captive population of two million in the world’s largest open-air prison. The huge number of maimings inflicted on Gaza demonstrators as a matter of course this year would have been intolerable were any other U.S. ally to blame. However, weak and divided between the Palestinian Authority (Fatah) in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, the Palestinians are victims twice over, their lack of unity strengthening the hand of their merciless jailers. One break for the Palestinians: the Israelis called off the fighting early. Normally they would have exacted more severe retribution, but time was short — a Eurovision concert was scheduled for May 14 in Tel Aviv.
Brief as it was, this recent bout of violence produced an unusual scare for Israel. A barrage of Gaza’s crude and inaccurate homemade projectiles overwhelmed its vaunted defensive “shield.” The embarrassment was explained by the missiles’ very lack of technological sophistication. Hurled suddenly en masse without achieving much speed, height or accuracy, the unexpected quantity made them impossible to target and shoot down. This well-known obstacle to real missile defense does not receive enough examination by the press; claims of success are always overblown. The Pentagon’s tests of such protective weapons are never conducted under realistic conditions, in which the offense has the advantage. For one thing, the incoming missiles are accompanied by metal chaff, to confuse the defenders. The very word “shield” is a misnomer.
Because there is no foolproof defense against them, missiles are a major concern for Israel, though not the fireworks from Gaza. Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon has sophisticated long-range missiles pointed at all of the cities to its south. They have not been used; their purpose is deterrence, for which they have been quite effective. Israel’s fear of Iran, a far weaker country in every sense, is based on two threats from the Islamic Republic: its putative ambition to break Israel’s regional monopoly by joining the club of nuclear-armed powers, and its ability to attack the Israeli population through surrogates. The dust-up with Gaza was an object lesson for both parties. That know-it-all Clausewitz was right, as usual, regarding the impossibility of foolproof battle preparation (see Hashim on war-fighting miscalculations, p. 31).
It is no mystery to those following the politics of the Middle East that the hard-line Netanyahu government of Israel — and it is not alone — wants the United States to cripple Iran, if not through sanctions then by other means. The Trump administration seems divided. The president campaigned on his aversion to such wars, but he needs to show he can get a better deal out of the mullahs than Obama did. Another real fight before the 2020 election could be the end of his hopes for a second term, though he seems to have empowered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton to foment one anyway. The major media, recalling the Bush-Cheney Iraq debacle, are onto the obvious danger this manipulation poses to U.S. interests. In 2002, there was much back and forth about the wisdom of invading Iraq to hunt down the butcher Saddam Hussein and reveal the secret weapons we knew he had hidden somewhere under the sand.
Though Iraq had no connection to al-Qaeda, regime change was already U.S. policy, and the country was reeling from 10 years of crippling sanctions. The trauma of 9/11 had inflamed U.S. public opinion and made the Bush administration look incompetent. The unimpeachable (up to that moment) secretary of state, General Colin Powell, had to be enlisted to close the deal. He actually claimed in public testimony at the United Nations that, inside some opaque panel trucks meandering around the Iraqi desert, there were mobile germ-warfare labs manufacturing “weapons of mass destruction.” Embarrassing; worse than the Gulf of Tonkin excuse that enabled Lyndon Johnson to send 500,000 American conscripts into Vietnam in the mid-1960s.
A similar shell game is again underway, as some in the Trump administration plump for war with another weak opponent softened up by sanctions. As in Southeast Asia, the U.S. record in the southwest, starting with Afghanistan, does not inspire confidence. It has “loser” written all over it, particularly with the notorious Bolton leading the charge and our European allies all taking a pass this time. Even the British have contradicted the U.S. claims about a potential casus belli in the Persian Gulf. Again missiles are involved, purportedly being loaded onto small boats as U.S. war ships ply the waters around Iran. The president, as of May 17, seems to have finally noticed that the overheated rhetoric has created alarm and is cooling it.
This Iran brouhaha drained the juice out of young Jared Kushner’s “peace” deal — likely delayed until the new elections in Israel, but already leaked all over the place. According to everyone, a Bantustan will be renamed “New Palestine,” though Israel will maintain political control. There will be no compensation to assuage the grievances of three generations of refugees, of course; they will remain someone else’s de facto charity case. The key selling point, in the opinion of the perpetrators of this document, is that those living in what’s left of the West Bank will be economically better off. How could they ask for anything more? Kushner seems to think the Palestinians “have gotten more aid than any people in history.” However, according to Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, there is no comparison. Israel has cost the United States $228 billion in 66 years, while the Palestinians have cost the United States $9 billion in 30 years. You can look it up.
This argument recalls the prescient 2004 bestseller by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Why, he asked about his fellow citizens, do they refuse to vote their pocketbooks? How come the “values” of these anti-elitist conservative Americans mean so much to them? The shocking presidential result of 2016 was a riposte to the simplistic notion that money “trumps” everything, even one’s very identity. The Kushner effort, says Jonathan Cook, “reads like the kind of peace plan that might be put together by an estate agent or car salesman.” Exactly. To quote Kushner from a time just before the document was generated, “We don’t want a history lesson. We’ve read enough books.” What could possibly go wrong?